Saturday, March 1, 2014

IKEA Hack, Part 1: Numerar laundry

As a blog post prelude, for those of you who are not familiar with the term "IKEA Hack", it is a reference to the unconventional adaptation of IKEA products to new uses that were neither foreseen nor intended by IKEA's designers.  There is an extremely popular online community called IKEA Hackers which shares the best and most beautiful of these repurposings.

It is a badge of social pride to be able to say that you devised a new IKEA hack that nobody else dreamed up.  The one I'm going to show below does not score very highly on the absolute creativity scale, but it represents an adaption that is potentially useful to millions of Americans.  It's been done before, but not very often, and not the way we did it, nor for the same reasons: using a Numerar butcher-block countertop to span the wall-to-wall space above the washer and dryer in a typical American tract home laundry room, rather than installing it in a kitchen as was originally intended.  
These are the only two pre-existing examples I found after an extensive search and I wouldn't call either of these spaces "typical" by tract home standards.  On the left, an under-stair design from Inspired Kitchen Designs.  On the right, machines tucked into a room corner where unfortunately the sheetrock did not extend fully forward such that the counter had to stop short of the fronts of the machines.  This second one is from Wild Ink Press.  
When I say "typical American tract home laundry room", this is what I mean:
The laundry or utility "room" is often nothing more than a short bridging hallway (we jokingly call ours an "air lock") between the house and the attached garage (in our case, the kitchen is on the left, and the garage is on the right of it).  Millions and millions of neoeclectic suburban tract homes have been built using much the same configuration.  
It's as small a space as could physically hold a side-by-side washer and dryer, measuring just 5'1" wide (regrettably, ours is not the 5'6" shown in the blueprint above, because every inch counts).  Despite this incredibly small size, it's one of the most intensely used spaces in our home.  Where you see "5 SHLVS" (shelves) in the drawing snippet above, we actually have a massive upright freezer and four linear feet of clothes racks (two 2-foot segments stacked one above the other), plus storage above the washer and dryer.  As well as being intensely used, it's obviously the highest traffic area of our home, so it has to function optimally.

About a year ago, I published this Part 1 post describing a make-over we did in order to maximize the efficiency of this tiny space.  I also published this post describing the lighting upgrade.
This was the result from a year ago, but it still left us with one unsolved problem.  
The remaining problem was this:
Because the room is so intensely used but didn't have a good work surface, stuff kept falling behind the machines.  Plastic and paper bags, pencils, coins, hair accessories, documents, mail, clothes hangars, trash, socks, underwear, grocery receipts, dog toys - the list was endless.  The last time we cleaned it out, we even found a portable smoke detector wedged between the wall and the dryer.  "It's a wonder we don't have a fire back there," my husband grumbled.  
It also represented an inefficient use of precious "extra-kitchen" work space.
I use the space on top of the washer to house my second microwave oven (two microwaves are necessary when you have a diet which is largely freezer-based).  I put a large cutting board beneath that, but it wasn't a real counter top and there was some unclaimed work space on the sides of the laundry machines.  Washers and dryers by themselves do not a good countertop make.  
I decided that I wanted to put in a real countertop that would completely span the space above both machines.  But there's a marketplace limitation associated with that idea:
Standard kitchen countertops, regardless of price point, are only 25 inches deep.  Screengrabbed from Google.    
This is what often happens as a result:  
If you use standard kitchen countertop in your laundry, it won't extend all the way out to the front of your machines.  Standard countertop was never intended for this purpose.  I find that the result usually looks unfinished, and it's not as useful because of the reduced work space.  Screengrabbed from this blog site.  
Here's another example that illustrates the problem exactly:  the newer style front-loading washers and dryers are deeper than standard cabinetry.  Screengrabbed from this site.  
So I had to find something I could customize for this application.  I realized right away that butcher block was my only real option.  Laminate would not be trim-able to the specific size dictated by our "air lock" configuration even if I could find bigger pieces for sale.  Stone or granite would be too expensive and also too heavy.  This laundry room countertop is additionally unlike a kitchen counter because it would need to be removable in order to access the laundry machine connections to water, natural gas, hot air exhaust, and drainage.

Given those limitations, the only viable option I found was IKEA's Numerar butcher block, which has the unparalleled advantage of being offered in a 39 inch depth as well as the standard 25 inch depth.
This puppy.  At approximately 73" by 39", that's one walloping big section of countertop. Screengrabbed from the IKEA website.   
This product is solid wood, and so it can be cut to any needed size.  In our case, our "air lock" counter needed to be 5'1" wide by 30" deep.

In this next section below, I will run you through an extensive set of photographs describing how we retrofit this thing.  This type of project does not demand a high level of skill, but you have to be very precise with your measurements, leveling, and cuts.
Make sure that you measure and plan everything carefully.  In our case, we could not make the counter extend all the way to the door frames because the two opposing doors of the "air lock" were offset by about one inch.  In other words, the wall depths were different on each side of the machines.  
You might want to plan on having difficulty procuring this particular Numerar.  With it being pretty much the only non-standard-depth countertop on the market at its price point, you can bet that a lot of folks are competing to get them.  I had to wait a few weeks for a shipment to arrive at the Houston Texas IKEA, and then when it came in, it started disappearing so fast that I had to drop everything on a weekday afternoon and go fetch one.  This particular shipment came in on a Tuesday and was sold out before close of business on the following Saturday.

The good news is that IKEA has a wonderful on-line live stock tracking utility which is updated every 30 minutes.  You can find out what's there and when, without having to get on the telephone.  
There it is, in all its flat-pack glory.  It fit into my 2011 minivan with third-row seats folded into the floor.  You'll want to plan carefully how you'll get it out of your vehicle once you get it home - it is a full 1.5" thick and the IKEA website reports that it weighs one hundred and seventeen pounds (!).  That makes it about one large cat lighter than I am.    
Here was an aggravation that made what should have been a simple retrofit much more of a pain in the lower anatomy:  Two electrical outlets had been set at exactly the height we needed the countertop to be.  We hadn't anticipated this retrofit when we ordered our house to be built, or else we would have had the tradesmen mount them differently.  Before we could install the countertop support ledges, we had to move the outlets.  
Ugh.  Not your average honey-do.  
Aaaand of course Murphy's Law has to enter the picture on every project.  There was a wooden cross-brace right where we wanted the new box to sit.

Don't do this kind of work unless you are qualified and understand the safety requirements.  Here's my husband using a drywall saw and there's an electrical wire running right behind him.  Don't fool with this stuff - hire an electrician to do it safely if you need to.  
Here you can see the outlets moved (our dryer runs on gas, so we actually capped the 220V outlet to the right) and the support rail going in.  Lot of tools, lot of mess, lot of measuring and verifying.  It is essential that the support rails on three sides of this alcove be exactly level.  
Here's a close-up of the washing machine corner.  Again you can see evidence of the fact that installation of a countertop in this area was never foreseen.  If it had been, we would not have allowed the tradesmen to mount the water manifold (sigh) at the exact height that we wanted the counter to set.

We used a 2-inch wood strapping on the rear wall and 1-inch PVC trim, which is the white stuff, on both sides.  I wanted a thicker ledge on the back wall because the easiest way to access the laundry connections is simply to pivot this massively heavy countertop up (I'll show a pic lower down in this post).  A large back ledge helps to ensure that it won't slip off.

We used three- and four-inch screws into wall studs at every opportunity.  Don't skimp on the support here.  Even when trimmed down to fit this space, the Numerar probably still weighs about 75 pounds.  It needs to be well supported.  
If you're a regular reader of this blog, you've heard my mantra:  Build your project out of cardboard first wherever possible.  In this case, we were going to be cutting into a two hundred dollar hard-to-find countertop.  You only get one shot at the right cut.  Therefore it's important to check, double check, and re-check measurements.  What better way to do that than make a mock-up countertop out of the cardboard box that the real deal came in?  
Seriously, you won't regret taking this extra step.  
The sections of Numerar that were trimmed off did not go to waste.  I'll show how they were put to good use in subsequent posts.  
Husband.  Measure, measure, measure.  
In a perfect world, we would have infinite work space and we would own a large table saw.  In actual fact, all we have is a circular saw and a couple of saw horses.  Here I've taped the cut line so that the body of the circular saw will not scratch the top of the counter as it is making the cut.  
It's a tungsten carbide tipped blade set to exactly the right depth.  I wouldn't use a cheap blade in an application like this.

This, of course, is a two-person job.  One to cut, and one to support and stabilize the trim piece.  Numerar is heavy.  Even to catch the cut-off pieces takes some strength.  
Moment of truth as the newly-cut piece is dry-fit.  
We notched out the back near the water and drainage connector box so that the hoses could all be brought up from underneath the countertop.  I later touched up the paint around this now-moved electrical outlet.  
See, this is what I meant by pivoting the counter up so that the machine workings could be accessed.  My husband is holding it as its weight rests on the back ledge.  
And here's the final result.  Much cleaner looking and much more usable work space in wall-to-wall wonderment.  
Here's where you can see the left side - right side comparison and the fact that the right side has an extra inch of wall.  By stopping the depth short of the door frame and splitting the difference, the wall offset is not noticeable.  Making the countertop depth 30" such that it was flush with the top front of the machines was the right choice here, I believe.  
Think you might want to tackle this project in your own home?  Here's an unexpected bonus which might make you even more excited about that possibility:

Putting a huge heavy piece of Numerar above these machines noticeably reduced the noise they generate.  With this "air lock" being next to our kitchen, the constant clank clank clank of stuff turning in the dryer has always been an annoyance, even when the inner door is shut.  I could have lived without the new work surface, but had I realized the potential for noise attenuation, I definitely would have pushed this project higher on my priority list.  I would have done it four years earlier than we did.

A final note on protecting the Numerar in a laundry room, which is a wet environment much like a kitchen.

I chose to go with IKEA's own food-grade mineral oil wood treatment.
That's a half liter of Skydd, and I wish I had bought a full liter, because this thing is huge, and it soaks up a lot of oil with repeated applications.    
I settled on this method after reading Addicted2Decorating's account of having tried four different approaches to finishing her own Numerar.  Sometimes the simplest way is the best way.  There are cheaper mineral oil formulations on the market, but they are less viscous than the Skydd, so I do recommend that exact product.
I didn't try to stain-match to my existing kitchen cabinets because the oil-treated Numerar is close enough to their color, as you can see here (and I expect it to darken further with age).

Adding this thing really helped to make the kitchen and the "air lock" look more cohesive from a design perspective.  Furthermore, I have plans for my Numerar trim pieces which require design-wise that all Numerar remain the same color.  I will get to that in a future post.  
I will close with the standard before-and-after parting shot.  Good luck with your own Numerar project, and thanks to the IKEA Hackers community for inspiring us all to stretch our imaginations in making adaptations such as this one.

And, oh, if you need additional IKEA-related project inspiration, try listening to Jonathan Coulton's IKEA song on YouTube.  It's actually pretty good.

I was a doubter just like you
'Till I saw the American dream come true...

Before and after.  


  1. Thanks for the post. I'm hoping to do something very similar in my laundry room. Any concern that it may start to sag in the center and need some extra support there?

  2. Very good question. We thought of that, but decided to take our chances. Actually our concern was not sag so much as warp (bending either up OR down), given that even well-prepared wood tends to naturally do that. We figure we'll cross that bridge if we come to it. We had used Numerar double-sided countertop in another unconventional application in our house two years ago. The unsupported span is even longer in that project (you can see it via Ikea Hackers "Cool teen bedroom workstation"), and that one has not sagged or warped, so we're hoping that this wooden Numerar behaves similarly. I'll update this post if anything changes with it.


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